11:07 AM PDT, September 2, 2021
The Sierra National Forest (SNF) closed some of its trails and campgrounds near Yosemite as a precautionary measure after citing “unknown hazards” located in the same area where a family of three and their dog died mysteriously last month, according to a published report.
The public safety warning was issued to visitors regarding unknown hazards found in and around the Savage Lundy Trail, within the Bass Lake Ranger District, and went into effect on Sunday that will run through September 26, according to a statement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
“We have also closed several recreation sites, roads, and trails along the Merced River and its South Fork until deemed safe for public use,” the U.S. Forest said in a statement.
The SNF said that in mid-July, forest officials had posted warning signs of potentially harmful algal blooms (HABs) identified in the South Fork of the Merced River, in the vicinity where the family was found, CNN reported.
The areas blocked off will have signs and barricades, and will be monitored by law enforcement personnel. Some of the recreation sites, roads and trail closure locations include the Cranberry Flat Day Use Picnic Site, Dirt Flat Campground, Dry Gulch Campground, Indian Flat Picnic Site, McClendon Beach Day Use Picnic Site, Forest Road No. 3S02, Hite Cove Trailhead, Savage Lundy Trailhead, South Fork Merced Trailhead, among others, the release said.
On August 17, the bodies of Johnathan Gerrish, 45, his wife, Ellen Chung, 30, their 1-year-old daughter, Aurelia Muji Chung, and the family dog, Oksi, were found near the Devil’s Gulch area in the Southfork of the Merced River drainage, according to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department. The family had recently moved to the Mariposa, California, area.
A county sheriff’s spokesperson called the deaths “very unusual” and said, “there were no signs of trauma, no obvious cause of death. There was no suicide note.”
Toxic algae had been ruled out as the cause of the mysterious deaths. Investigators had also been looking at whether exposure to chemicals from a nearby mine played a role, Inside Edition previously reported.
Kristie Mitchell, public information officer with the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office told Inside Edition Digital that the trail that was closed was the same trail the Gerrish family was on.
“We are basically onto two weeks and everyone wants answers, but we are being as methodical as possible. We are doing a massive amount of toxicology testing. We can’t speculate on what we think at this point because we don’t have all the facts.
“Part of the hike the family had gone on goes along the Southfork of the Merced River. They had access to water but, unfortunately, we don’t know if they went into the water with their dog for a swim, or may have ingested the water or were exposed to any toxins in the area. Temperatures that day were well over 100 degrees. We are hoping the toxicology reports will provide us with the information we need,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell added, “What we can confirm is that when the family was found at Savage Lundy Trail there were no chemical hazards at the site.”
As of Thursday, Mitchell said the family’s cause of death remains in question.
“There were no obvious signs of death during the initial autopsy and the pathologist is not ready to release any information yet without the toxicology report, Mitchell said.
As of Thursday afternoon, officials are still waiting on toxicology reports. According to the sheriff’s department, the toxicology samples of each family member and the dog were sent out to labs, officials said.
Multiple water samples were also taken in the area. The water the family had with them is also being tested. Samples were sent to both the State Waterboard and independent labs. Additional testing is being coordinated with the CDC and Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment, Mitchell said.
According to the investigation’s timeline, the day before the Gerrish family set out on their hike, Jonathan Gerrish had researched a hike at Hites Cove on his phone app. According to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department, the entire loop of the Hites Cove Rd- Savage Lundy Trail, located inside the 2018 Ferguson Fire footprint, is approximately 8.5 miles, and five of those miles consist of a steep southern exposure. The path had little to no trees or shade and temperatures can spike as high as 103 to 109 degrees, particularly between the hours of 11:50 a.m. to 5:50 p.m.
On Aug. 15, witnesses saw the Gerrish/Chung family traveling towards the trailhead in their vehicle around 7:45 a.m. When the family had not returned to their home the next day, a family friend reported them missing. On August 17, at 1:53 a.m., the family’s car was located and the search and rescue mission began. By 11 a.m., search crews found the deceased family.
Search warrants were issued for phones found with the family, as well as their home and car, but nothing significant was located. Their phones were given to the FBI pending information. Search warrants were also executed for possible social media access.